Updated: Oct 18, 2021
After years of racial injustices at the hand of law enforcement have bubbled over, subsequent protests for change have carried some momentum for the part that the court system has had in these injustices. The criminal justice system can be broken down into subcategories including law enforcement, the court system, correction of offenders through the prison system, and the processing of the prisoners after they are released. Here, the court system will be explained from a historical sense, compared, and put in context with current issues.
Foundations of the American Courts
The main guarantees of the U.S. court system include the rights to a jury and to due process, which is mentioned twice in the Constitution, under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The Magna Carta, in 1215, gave a baseline for what due process entails by stating “No free man shall be seized, or imprisoned … except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land,” which can easily be compared to the American idea that no person should “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
The court system, also under the Fourteenth Amendment, is prohibited from legal discrimination on the basis of race by the Equal Protection clause. Despite this, there is evidence of discrimination based on race in sentencing. In fact, 70% of the incarcerations in the United States are of non-white individuals. As of this June, the United States is a world leader in incarcerated citizens per capita.
The drug policing with direct correlations to racial incarcerations is nothing new in the brief history of the U.S. Throughout history, instances of drug bans have been used to legally target minorities. For example, the first opium laws in the 1870s were directed towards Chinese immigrants, the anti-cocaine laws early into the 1900s were directed at southern African-Americans, and the first marijuana laws in the 1910s were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican-Americans.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” which increased drug control along with policies like mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants which have come under extreme scrutiny, especially after the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her sleep by police officers using a no-knock warrant. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman later admitted according to a resurfacing interview.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 allows a maximum sentence of 40 years for some quantities and up to life in prison for some higher quantities. But along with this, requires a five-year minimum sentence for offenses that involved 5 grams of crack, 500 grams of cocaine, 1 kilogram of heroin, 40 grams of a substance with a detectable amount of fentanyl, 5 grams of methamphetamine, 100 kilograms or 100 plants of marijuana. The minimum sentencing can increased based on how much of the substance was found in the person’s possession with no consideration of circumstance. This law takes away sentencing power and the ability to give circumstantial ruling from judges.
How the U.S. Measures Up Globally
In school, students learn about the U.S. court system, but not how it is different from the rest of the world. The clearest difference in U.S. courts as opposed to other countries is that it is in the family of “common law,” which is based on precedents handed down by judges.
Precedents refer to the idea that unlike “civil law,” which follows a written code, the U.S. court system also incorporates past decisions made by judges with the concept of stare decisis. This means that if a question of legality has already been answered, all cases in that court or courts below its jurisdiction must refer to the original answer.
For example, in the case of Roe v. Wade, which established a woman’s right to an abortion as a constitutional right, when further cases of abortion are brought to court, stare decisis can be invoked to bind judges to follow the legal precedents set by the decision. In another example, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that slavery was illegal in 1820 which meant that all lower courts in Indiana had to follow this ruling’s precedent that slavery was illegal through the concept of stare decisis.
But, the Supreme Court may dispute this like in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. Originally, while the case was being heard in the district court, the ruling favored the Board of Education citing the “separate but equal precedent,” established in Plessy vs. Ferguson. Despite this ruling, it was appealed to the Supreme Court where the ruling was overturned because, despite the “separate but equal” sentiment, the concept was inherently unequal. This now served as the new precedent because of its passing in the highest court of the nation.
That is what sets U.S. courts apart, instead of just simply following what was written like most European countries. Courts have proven to be less reluctant to overturn rulings now than in the past, but generally follow specific criteria to ensure that the overturning is necessary. First, justices must consider the original case’s ruling and whether the reasoning is sound and of good quality. Also, if the precedent is too difficult to interpret and imply, this may call for overturning as well as if there are discrepancies in other similar case rulings. One of the more controversial criteria of overturning a precedent is the changing of society and how the original ruling is interpreted over time. Some things that may have been socially accepted may not be anymore or vice versa. Finally, the judges must also consider the individuals or groups that have become reliant on the decision. Even if the decision is flawed, is it in the best interest of the public to completely overturn it?
In places like France, Germany, Brazil, China and Afghanistan, cases and precedents are not the primary way that they make their decisions. Instead, they use a frequently changing legal code that updates with the era. While one is not objectively better than the other, for a younger country like the U.S. which has had less time to decide on how the nation should interpret laws, common law is more effective because it gives a sense of flexibility to the legal system, which can be credited to many of the progressions in ideals that are held today. In China, The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China is the highest law that is referred to without many changes. In Afghanistan, the legal system is also a civil law system, but with Islamic and customary rule as well. The U.S. system differs through the Separation of Church and State to prevent legal action from being influenced by religious beliefs.
The court system is itself, unable to take part in discrimination, but the laws and precedents used in the court system may make this possible. It is important to understand that in most cases, the courts remain impartial to uphold justice. Despite this, our country having been built with slavery and colonization does impact the court’s culture today.
Through Teen Lenses: Do you feel that everyone has equal rights and representation through the U.S. court system?
“Absolutely not. Minorities typically get longer sentences for lesser crimes than the white male. That is not because minorities are more dangerous or commit more crimes, it is because of the racism and implicit bias that exists in this country.” Maeryn Erdheim, 15, Rising Junior at Magruder High School, Derwood, Maryland
“There is not fair representation and treatment in the U.S. Court System. The Due Process Clause was established to ensure the basic concept of fairness. This applies when the government’s actions impact the life, liberty or property of any person. The United States Constitution made a provision to abide by this clause, the 14th amendment. The amendment claims no state shall make or enforce a law that will “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” With all of the above information in mind, recent statistics seem to go against these protections. From 2012-2018 the average sentence for a Black man was 19.1% longer than a while man with a similar background and nearly identical charges. I will leave this information here for you (the reader) to judge whether the court system provides fair judgment and treatment. For me, the answer is quite evident.” Christina Defiore,15, Rising Junior at Richard Montgomery High School, Rockville, Maryland
“Throughout history, the court system has evolved with the societal norms and I believe that in this day and age, people do have equal rights and representation in the court system.” Mason Goldstein, 16, Rising Junior at Winston Churchill High School, Potomac, Maryland